Monday, June 25, 2012

Welland Half

I'm not usually one to get sentimental but this race report has been a year in the making. For a while now I have been putting a lot of energy and training focus on the 70.3 distance, with nothing to show for it. DNF in St Croix in 2010, DNS at this race last year, flat tire and another DNF in St Croix this spring. After gaining some maturity as an athlete and putting in a s**t ton of training hours I was starting to get the feeling that I may actually have it in me to finish one of these damn things. But with my luck in the past the whole race was still a huge unknown.

So just like last year Amanda and I hit the road to Niagara for Multisport Canada's Welland race weekend. Amanda did the sprint on Saturday, and after three straight weeks of racing she was dealt a tough hand and showed a lot of resiliency toughing out another awesome result (maybe I'll start writing race reports for her too).

I started to get pretty nervous on Saturday night and woke up on race morning with more nerves than I have had in a long time. I had put in the hours, I'm a completely different athlete both mentally and physically than last year, but the thought that I was actually capable of getting it done this time actually added a little more pressure. Long course racing isn't just a different distance, its a completely different sport and I had no idea how to put together a 4-5 hour race.

Swim - 29:43 (1:29/100m)

The swim was a mass start of about 500 people in the Welland cannal. I lined up front and center, and apparently no one else knew that its much faster to start horizontally for an in-water start than bobbing around until the gun goes. At the 60 second announcement I heard a (female) voice behind me..."if you kick me in the face I'm going to f***ing kill you." I gently splashed a few times to claim my space.

As with any mass start the first 400 was complete chaos, and despite being one of the stronger swimmers I found myself in the washing machine with a number of strong athletes in the field, and many more just taking it out way too fast. I was finally able to settle in around 500m and focus on recovering and finding a rhythm for the rest of the swim. I was leading a chase pack of athletes through the majority of the swim, trying to bridge up to some of the leaders without digging too deep. It was hard at times to stay focused swimming in no man's land, in a straight line for a kilometer. I was starting to wonder if I was swimming well at all but tried to bring myself back to focusing on my stroke. At about 1500m, with it starting to feel like a really long swim, I found myself in a group of 4 or 5 and we all came in together. By far my best open water 2k but still room for improvement.

Bike - 2:20:16

With a 400m run up to transition I decided it was best to pull off my wetsuit ASAP rather than run all the way up to transition in it. After a quick pit stop I ran past everyone I had come out of the water with, and had the fastest T1 of the entire race.

All of the talk about this race is how flat and fast the bike course is. And its true...there was literally one time all race that I had to change gears.  I was looking forward to having a strong ride and putting down a fast bike split, but 90k is still a long way to race for me. The first 10k was effortless as I made my way through some riders and my average speed was close to 39 with a slight headwind. At 20k I was passed by one of the strongest riders in the race and since I was feeling pretty good I decided to pick it up a notch and keep him in sight (mistake #1 - race within your own limits). I kept a strong but manageable pace through 30k when I went through a couple small groups (some of which in the swim-bike and duathlon) and got really motivated to be moving through the field. I went through 40k in 1:01 and was still feeling comfortable in the aerobars.

At 55k there was a short out-and-back which was the only chance to see who was ahead. At that point Nigel Gray was off the front with a small chase pack of 4 or 5 riders close behind only 3-4k ahead. My friend Chris Pickering was close behind me as well. As I made the turn looking forward to a bit of a tailwind home I started to realize that I may have pushed my luck with my pace going out. I backed it off a little to try to recover but I was still hurting for the next 10k. I started to wonder how the hell I was going to run a half marathon after all of this. Chris passed me at 70k at the start of a road that was 15k of completely flat and straight riding, and I definitely lost a bit of focus there as I got more and more uncomfortable through 2 hours of riding in the aerobars. I tried to refocus and told myself that if I finished strong I could still break 2:20 (mistake #2 - don't fight for seconds on the bike with a 21km run coming up). After watching the meters tick by on my Garmin I finally got back into town and was in good spirits seeing Amanda as I got into T2. With a good swim and bike I was happy with where I was at - a very good run would put me under 4:20, and I just needed to survive to break 4:30.

Run: 1:35:55.......

I really had no idea what to expect on the run, not only with it being a half ironman run, but with the doubts in my mind all week of my poor run in Leamington and my heel that was still badly bruised. I decided to wear extra cushiony socks and shoes hoping it wouldn't bug me. I settled into a good rhythm of 4:00 k's through the first 3k, which like on the bike, felt comfortable at the time but was way too fast. I quickly realized you can't take a long course race out at goal pace and try to hang on, you HAVE to start very conservative and build throughout.

At 4k my quads started to cramp and I hoped to hell it wouldn't get any worse. I was starting to make up ground on some athletes ahead. My quads slowly loosened up but it was replaced by my feet going completely numb, a feeling that stuck around for the next 10k. I tried to slow my pace to 4:10-4:15/km and still felt ok through 7k. Somewhere between 8 and 9k was the first really rough patch I experienced and my legs were screaming at me to walk. I started to hit survival mode and was grabbing coke at every aid station. I started wondering how the hell I was going to run 21km, but when I made it to 10k there was some comfort in knowing I had gotten that far without completely falling apart yet. But my legs were already shattered. I told myself that if I had to walk a few steps it wouldn't be out of giving into weakness, but so I could run harder for the next 10 minutes. I shamefully started walking the aid stations, something I vow to never do again in a 70.3.

After a short walk and guzzling some coke and water at an aid station, I actually started to run well through 10-15k. But at 16k near the final turnaround my quads and hip flexors started to lock up. It was pure survival...just get back to the finish. I could not get my heart rate up at all but I could barely lift my legs with every step. At 19k we finally fnished the 2 lap out-and-back section and were on our way back to the finish but there was nothing left to try to pick it up. I was trying to make deals with myself - only 10 more minutes, I'm gonna collapse and chug 3 chocolate milks when I finish, only 8 more minutes, I'm quitting triathlon after this. I have never suffered like that before. My last km was probably over 5 minutes, not for lack of effort or motivation to cross that damn finish line. I finally saw it with about 400m left. I don't remember finishing but I do remember collapsing into a first aid chair and having my temperature taken. They were asking me if I was ok and all I could respond with was "coooooke....." Amanda came over and ran to get my some sugar. I was trying to tell them that I was really ok, I just could not activate my quads to get up.

I spent the next half our laying on the ground, literally unable to move or walk (and I heard at least one person call me a baby) until I finally loosened up a bit and got some food. I exchanged some war stories with Chris and a few other athletes before heading over to the finish to watch some friends cross.

All things considered I am really happy with the race. This was a race of overcoming bad luck and facing the unknown. The only thing I knew for sure was that I would blow up at some point, I just didn't know when. I certainly was hoping for better than a 1:35 run split, I'm more than capable of running 10 minutes faster. I'm really happy with my swim and bike, and I gained a ton of experience with pacing, and more importantly proving to myself that I am in fact capable of finishing a race like that. A little more fitness and some better pacing strategies and I'm confident I can knock a ton of time off and not put myself in the hurt box so soon.

So after such a big focus on long course for the first half of the season its time to figure out where to take things from here. I didn't get many MSC series points as it was a very competitive race, so I am still planning on racing at least 4 more events. I'm looking forward to a couple shorter races to test my speed, but I'm actually looking forward to putting myself through that torture again. Now that I know I can finish I'm excited to give it another shot and see how it goes.

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